Diaries Of A Darkhorse: Is A Business Degree Really Necessary?

“Business” conjures up distinct images for different people. They may associate it with a splashy product rollout at a conference or simply two people discussing a proposal at a local diner. What these images hopefully share in common is a basic definition. Business happens when one party produces something that has perceived value. They then exchange that good (or service) to another party for something else of value. A successful business will create a profit from the transaction, and repeat the process.

This textbook definition of business can be a very powerful one. A child selling lemonade at a neighborhood stand is a budding businessperson. They’re just as involved in business as a Coca-Cola executive overseeing Minute Maid lemonade manufacturing. Yes, the definition is loose, but it points to the fact that there are countless ways to be involved in business.

Such a broad field is naturally going to capture a lot of interest in students, and nearly one-fifth of all college graduates in the U.S. major in business. This high proportion can be partially attributed to an underlying assumption: the most direct path to getting into business is a degree in the same field.

Assuming a major like marketing or finance is the default choice for anyone interested in pursuing business can be a mistake. In consulting hundreds of college applicants, I’ve heard three principal versions of this assumption:

“A business degree is required”

In a small subset of cases, a certain major is a necessity to be considered for a particular career. The clearest example is accounting. If someone wants to be a practicing accountant, they will almost certainly need a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license, which requires a certain number of accounting courses. When a career path requires an accreditation or credential linked to the degree, then studying business isn’t an option; it’s required.

“I need it to get a job”

There are many entry-level jobs in business that don’t even ask for a business degree. The numbers empirically bear this out in highly-selective fields like management consulting and even investment banking. They are looking to hire smart problem-solvers, not business experts.

For those roles that do ask for a business degree, all is not lost. Many times, employers demand business skills, not business credentials.

Ben Fouch

Often, employers will end up interviewing and hiring individuals who don’t meet the strict criteria of their job posting. They do that because applicants show they have a competency in the functional skills of the role without a full degree in the field. That’s partially why there are English majors running investment funds and Classic Studies majors working as management consultants.

No one has to pursue a full degree in management, marketing, or a similar field to learn the “language of business.” Taking a handful of targeted business electives, or even self-learning can give you an adequate base of fundamentals. Demonstrating those fundamentals to an employer can qualify a candidate.

Getting involved with business clubs that offer hands-on experience can also expose you to the same material. More importantly, it can signal to employers that you possess the requisite experience. The key is proficiency in the language of business, not necessarily fluency. Employers care about the full set of skills a candidate brings. Strength in areas that are unusual for the role (such as coding, communication skills, etc.) can be an enticing benefit. Perhaps most important of all, it helps you stand out.

 “It’s the best preparation”

Our office has a whiteboard where we post a question every day. There was a particularly good one a few weeks ago. It asked, “If you could redo college and study anything, what would it be?”. Our executive team, all of whom studied business and have had successful careers at major international companies, voted for Philosophy (30%), Computer Science (20%), Statistics (10%), Engineering (20%), and Economics (20%).

These results generally mirror what I have seen working with and interviewing executives around the country. While successful people naturally discount their existing knowledge (“You want what you don’t have”), the results are still telling.

All of the non-business majors listed above have some things in common. They emphasize clear thinking, problem-solving in the face of ambiguity, and disciplined analysis. At many colleges, these majors are considered “harder” because of their greater emphasis on these skills.  Their extra rigor makes students more prepared for a variety of hard problems that may be thrown their way in the real world.

Colleges love to talk to their incoming classes about how the jobs they’ll be applying for during their senior year don’t even exist yet. They have a point; the future is uncertain. In the face of that uncertainty, it’s a good bet to focus on developing skills and aptitudes rather than an assortment of concrete knowledge. Business degrees certainly teach a blend of skills and knowledge. The question is whether another course of study might sharpen skills more relevant to the future.

My Vice President at my first job put things more succinctly: “You went to school to learn how to learn. Now we get to actually teach you something,”

Getting a business degree most likely makes it easier for students to get their first job in business right out of school. The impact of one’s education doesn’t end at graduation or after that first job. What we learn in college impacts our growth and development throughout our careers. There is a large subset of students who study business who would have enjoyed and benefitted from another major more. It’s incumbent on each incoming college student to go through that discernment process themselves.

Ben Fouch is an Associate at LDI, Ltd., an Indianapolis-based family office with more than a century of experience operating high-potential, middle-market companies. He assists the fund in capital deployment and with operational improvement in its portfolio companies. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

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